Sunday, April 18, 2004

Kids These Days And Their Post-Structuralism

My contemporary feminist theory professor in college defended her syllabus by telling us that "life is too short to read Camille Paglia," and she was probably right. But everyone else is referencing this essay, and besides, it serves as a useful distraction from the work I should be doing. Paglia writes:
Interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S. It is difficult to imagine American students today, even at elite universities, gathering impromptu at midnight for a passionate discussion of big, challenging literary works like Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov - a scene I witnessed in a recreation room strewn with rock albums at my college dormitory in upstate New York in 1965.
She goes on to explain that rapidly moving images on TV have caused radical changes in the way our minds work, leading to short attention spans and worse: "Those in whom eye movements and vestibular equilibrium are disrupted, I contend, cannot sense context and thus become passive to the world, which they do not see as an arena for action." (If you reached college age in the past 30 years, Paglia is apparently talking about you.)

In the first place, Mark Liberman is correct. If there had really been a massive shift in the perceptual and cognitive capacities of American children, I wouldn't be learning about it from a curmudgeonly essay by a humanities professor: it would be all over the scientific journals. I took a graduate-level course in cognitive development as recently as 1998, and surely the professor would have mentioned a sea change in the workings of the human mind somewhere between the stepping reflex and Piaget.

Honestly, I think this is one more example of "those degenerate kids these days and their crazy music," elevated to a respectability it doesn't deserve because of Paglia's intellectual cachet - which I'm not sure she deserves either.

Kids these days aren't like Paglia's friends in college were. But most kids at the time that Paglia was in college probably weren't like her friends. The educational path that ends in a Ph.D. and a professorship typically involves early segregation from average people, and when Paglia was growing up in the age of "ability tracking," that was even more true. Grad school selects for precisely the kinds of people who, as Paglia describes her college buddies, like to have intense discussions of literature at midnight. (Well, my program selected for people who liked to get drunk and mock inferior research methods, but the principle is the same.) No doubt there were plenty of other students at SUNY Binghamton in the 1960s who only cared about football and drinking and their future business careers, and who whined when they were assigned books that were too hard.

Paglia didn't have to hang out with those guys then, but now their direct descendants have shown up in her classes and she's stuck with them. The middle of the bell curve is much fatter than the ends, so she's probably got a lot more beer-and-Cliffs-notes kids in class than she has proto-intellectuals. That doesn't mean that America's youth have gotten dumber, it just means that she's being forced to encounter a wider spectrum of America's youth than she ever had to know when she was one.

If you read historical essays about academia, it's clear that the same shock happens to professors in every generation. She's just updated for the digital era the old complaints about the degrading effects of radio and rock 'n' roll and co-education.